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Answering Hemingway: A Farewell Letter to the Senior Class

On our last day of school, I read the following letter aloud to my class of seniors, for whom it was written.

If I were to count it up, I don’t know how many pages of words you all have given me in the past two years. And while you wrote those pages for homework, and I gave them a grade, they also were a gift: your time and thought and conviction and art, put into words and given to me. The materialism of our culture teaches us to think of gifts as things; but the gift of words—what the Lord Jesus called “the overflow of the heart”—are perhaps more valuable than things, for they echo that greatest gift of the Word become flesh. During the past two years, I have treasured your words, and on our last day of classes together, I thought to set down some words to give back to you.

I will wander around a little bit, thinking back on some of the stories and ideas and moments we’ve experienced together; then I’ll look for some of the meaning in it all, and finally try to tie it into something I can give back to each of you.

My thoughts start with the books we’ve read together. I’ve taught a lot of books here—The Scarlet Letter, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, To Kill A Mockingbird, Canterbury Tales, Othello, Hamlet, Taming of the Shrew, As You Like It, The Faerie Queene, Paradise Lost, Pride and Prejudice, Tale of Two Cities, Picture of Dorian Gray, Heart of Darkness, Great Gatsby, The Sun Also Rises, The Lord of the Flies, and The Stranger—and I haven’t noticed that any one of them is the hands-down favorite book of a majority of students. But I have noticed that of all these books—so many authors and perspectives and time periods—the book at which the most students come into class saying “Life is like that!” is The Sun Also Rises.

This saddens me, for I would say that this novel is the most hopeless of all the novels we read together. It saddens me that most students resonate with the feeling that life is hopeless; and it saddens me that, in some moods, I feel the same thing.

As we discussed months ago, the title of that book is taken from Ecclesiastes, in which the Teacher says, “The sun also rises, and the sun goes down, and hastens back to the place where it arose . . . . Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.” The passage is a lament for the ultimate meaninglessness of human life, a cycle of activities ended only by death, none of them transcending life “under the sun,” where there is nothing new. Hemingway captures this lament so poignantly in his story of the Lost Generation, and in teaching this novel I have seen how, along with Jake, you and many others alive today—young people especially perhaps—feel there is nothing new to discover, say, or do; and this feeling that nothing is new, in a culture such as ours that prizes novelty, leads by an easy path to the feeling that nothing is worthwhile. Perhaps you have felt it too: “If I can’t create a new genre of music, then I can’t do anything meaningful in music.” “If I can’t make a new development in video game creation, then I may as well not try.” “If the gospel is already old news to my friend, I can’t really tell it again and be taken seriously.”

But I wonder if, in prizing newness, we have overlooked another quality far more significant. Another writer before Hemingway also lamented the tiredness of the world, but his poem begins in a different place, and so it also ends in a different place than Hemingway could. Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote from the roils of the Industrial Revolution, when the natural beauty of the English countryside was being transformed by the grayness of factories and chimneys:

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

“Freshness” is the quality that I wonder whether we’ve overlooked. Freshness recognizes the recurring quality of our existence—the “been there, done that” of it—but declares that repetition can bring joy rather than dreariness: the joy of the return of summertime, with the thrill of change and newness softened by the tenderness of familiarity and memory, or the joy of hearing again on the radio a long-forgotten song from a sweet season in life, or the joy of repentance after confessing once again a plaguing sin, or the joy of spending time again with a friend you already know well. I think we realize this best when raw emotion knocks us out of our stale cynicism. When you experience death, or when you fall in love, you do not think those experiences are meaningless simply because they are as old as Adam and Eve; you are met by their freshness, and it can take your breath away. No grief nor love is new under the sun; but neither grief nor love is any less sharp for being more common.

There are, after all, two ways of saying “The sun also rises.” One is the way Hemingway and the Teacher of Ecclesiastes say it. Another is the way that G.K. Chesterton described it:

Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.

If you begin by resting your soul in the “grandeur of God,” as Hopkins does, then you can end by seeing an exuberance, a freshness—even a childlikeness—in the world that He has never let go of. The Holy Ghost still “broods” over creation as He hovered over the waters in Genesis 1, bringing forth life and beauty; and it is our task to search out the “dearest freshness deep down things”—even things that seem hard, stale, vanity.

From this search will come joy, and courage too—for like your life, your words, also, can be fresh. Quintilian, the great Roman teacher of rhetoric, wrote, “We must not despair of the possibility of finding something better than what has been said; nor has nature made language so meager and poor that we cannot speak well on any subject except in one way.” Remember what I tried to say at the beginning: your words are a gift. They have been a gift to me, and they can be a gift to all to whom you open your mouth to speak or put pen to paper (or hands to keyboard, or fingers to smartphone) to write. You will not find meaning in making something new; that is God’s task; but you will find it in putting fresh words to the strong old truth, beauty, and goodness you have received, and in embodying it in a fresh new life. Another of my favorite poets, T.S. Eliot, said it like this:

So here I am, in the middle way, having had twenty years-
Twenty years largely wasted, the years of l’entre deux guerres-
Trying to use words, and every attempt
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure
Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it. And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate,
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion. And what there is to conquer
By strength and submission, has already been discovered
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope
To emulate – but there is no competition –
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss.
For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.

Our two years of studying together will not have fully prepared you for all this. But I hope that, in some ways, they have at least wakened us all (myself included) to a fresh recognition that we ought, we can, and we desire to do this. I hope that in the midst of our reading and writing and discussion, you have felt at least once the power of words: the way that a few sentences can reshape someone’s reality, can transform the interpretation of an event, can knock the domino that tumbles into greater and greater events. I hope you have felt the care of words: the way they are so fragile, so malleable, and yet so un-retractable that their use requires the most delicate caution, as the apostle James warned when he urged everyone to be “quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry.” I hope you have felt the beauty of words, perhaps in Shakespeare’s soaring soliloquies or Fitzgerald’s lyrical descriptions. I know you have felt the joy of words: all I have to do to evoke that is to say “dank,” or “spicy,” or “salty.”

What I am trying to say is that, as Eliot said, it will take a lifetime to find fresh ways to keep speaking and living the ancient things you’ve staked your life on—God the Father Almighty, His Son Jesus Christ our Lord, the Holy Spirit, the church, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, the life to come. But do not let the cynicism of this world “under the sun” fool you into thinking that, just because the sun rises and sets and rises again, these things are trivial or irrelevant or worn-out. The dearest freshness dwells within them, and in your life and your speech, you can pull it out, to the immense relief and joy of those around you.

I am confident of that because you have each done it for me. I sit back sometimes after a day of school and just marvel at the unexpectedness, the richness, the surprises that each of you are full of—the flashes of humor you bring to class, the one of every hundred sentences in your essays that stops me short and arrests my thought, the glimpses that your writing now and then gives me into your deep concerns and convictions, the gamut of ways you kid around with and yet care for each other. You have shown me a freshness in life, and it has been to me a thing of hope and meaning.

(Here, I thanked each student for a way he or she had shown me a freshness in life and the world.)

So, thank you to all of you. I am so glad to be sending you off from the completion of high school to the calling the Lord has for you beyond it; but I will miss you, too. Once a king or a queen in Narnia, always a king or queen in Narnia; and I hope you’ll think of me as once your teacher, always your teacher—or maybe, better, friend.

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